On Writing Your Heart Out

12/20/2013 10:46 EST | Updated 02/19/2014 05:59 EST

I'm not a good negotiator. If you know me, you know it's true. I back down easily.

If you tell me something I've done is mediocre, or even lacking, I'm unlikely to argue. And I will probably believe you even if I've previously been on the fence. But something strange has happened lately. (And if you know me, you've probably heard about it because I can't seem to stop talking about it, which is unlike me too.) I've written a novel and I'm not letting go of the idea that it could be good.

You might think, well, maybe it is good. But what if I told you that a couple of literary agents have read all or part of it? And that they didn't think it was good? And that I happened to agree with their reasons for thinking it wasn't good? And that on many days, and at many moments, I don't think it's good either?

Lord help me, though, because on other days and at other moments I think it is good. Or could be. And I've now spent more money than I'm willing to admit on an editor who has helped me make it better.

And for what?

I'm not naive enough to think I'll make a fortune on this novel even if someone besides me eventually decides it's worth something. I'm not even, I don't think, wishing for fame. Maybe I just want other people -- people I respect -- to also think this book is good. But what if it's not?

"My book got rejected 3,409 times before it got published." You hear variations on that theme often enough. And it's inspiring... yet only because there's an unspoken assumption that the book in question deserved to get published; and that those 3,409 agents and/or publishers who rejected it first were unsophisticated rubes who wouldn't know quality literature if it came and punched them in the nose.

The "I got rejected 3,409 times story" quickly goes from motivating to just sad and embarrassing if the book really isn't good and never warranted being published, let alone read, in the first place.

What if by persisting with this book, I'm making a fool of myself?

I asked this question of a (published) fiction writer I respect. His response? You must be willing to make a fool of yourself.

It's a good answer. He didn't tell me I'm not making a fool of myself. Because I might be. Rather, he implied that it's a risk you've got to take if you're to write something for anyone but yourself to read.

(I wonder if that's where this stubbornness is coming from -- a willingness to look foolish that, though still small, is growing in me as I grow older and realize how many of the people I assumed were fools were not, and vice versa.)

Of course, that's a good question too: Who should you write for but yourself? I went through a period in my late teens when I felt like parts of J.D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction were a message just for me.

"If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer," Seymour implores his brother Buddy in a note. "You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself."

I copied that quote in several notebooks and repeated it to myself often. I'm not positive, but I think I may even have had a printout of it pasted on my computer during the fall of my freshman year as a creative writing major.

I then spent four years in writing workshops feeling wounded and defensive when others didn't love what I'd done; toyed with the idea of becoming a neuropsychology grad student; then eventually packed it in and went to law school so that I'd be able to pay my own rent.

I still loved what Seymour was saying in theory. But I was becoming more cognizant of the fact that Seymour was not only a fictional character, but a fictional character who'd blown his brains out in a Miami hotel room. So his advice was seeming less practical as a life guide than it once had.

I'd like to think that maybe my recent insistence on doggedly persevering with my maybe-not-good novel is a sign that I'm ready to listen to Seymour again. I've found ways to pay the mortgage and people to connect with, all of which puts me in a safe spot from which to risk foolishness and exhibit shamelessness.

Then again, Seymour didn't say anything about writing a "good" novel. He wanted to see Buddy "writing a something, an anything, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart." Buddy had earned the right not to worry about "good" because he was such a skilled artist, he just was good, knew good, couldn't be anything but good if he was true to himself. "Trust your heart," Seymour writes him. "You're a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you."

Do the rest of us get the same dispensation even if we're not deserving craftsmen? Might we be permitted time spent writing potential crap, as long as it's crap that genuinely pleases us (if no one else) to read? Maybe what I've been trying to get across to people about this novel of mine, which I'm been pushing with uncharacteristic forwardness, is not that it's good; but rather that most of my stars were out when I wrote it. And maybe that's all I really need to know.


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